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Three Women

Three Women

It thrills us and torments us. It controls our thoughts and destroys our lives. It’s all we live for. Yet we almost never speak of it. And as a buried force in our lives, desire remains largely unexplored—until now. Over the past eight years, journalist Lisa Taddeo has driven across the country six times to embed herself with ordinary women from different regions and backgrounds. The result, Three Women, is the deepest nonfiction portrait of desire ever written.

We begin in suburban Indiana with Lina, a homemaker and mother of two whose marriage, after a decade, has lost its passion. She passes her days cooking and cleaning for a man who refuses to kiss her on the mouth, protesting that “the sensation offends” him. To Lina’s horror, even her marriage counselor says her husband’s position is valid. Starved for affection, Lina battles daily panic attacks. When she reconnects with an old flame through social media, she embarks on an affair that quickly becomes all-consuming.

In North Dakota we meet Maggie, a seventeen-year-old high school student who finds a confidant in her handsome, married English teacher. By Maggie’s account, supportive nightly texts and phone calls evolve into a clandestine physical relationship, with plans to skip school on her eighteenth birthday and make love all day; instead, he breaks up with her on the morning he turns thirty. A few years later, Maggie has no degree, no career, and no dreams to live for. When she learns that this man has been named North Dakota’s Teacher of the Year, she steps forward with her story—and is met with disbelief by former schoolmates and the jury that hears her case. The trial will turn their quiet community upside down.

Finally, in an exclusive enclave of the Northeast, we meet Sloane—a gorgeous, successful, and refined restaurant owner—who is happily married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other men and women. He picks out partners for her alone or for a threesome, and she ensures that everyone’s needs are satisfied. For years, Sloane has been asking herself where her husband’s desire ends and hers begins. One day, they invite a new man into their bed—but he brings a secret with him that will finally force Sloane to confront the uneven power dynamics that fuel their lifestyle.

Based on years of immersive reporting, and told with astonishing frankness and immediacy, Three Women is a groundbreaking portrait of erotic longing in today’s America, exposing the fragility, complexity, and inequality of female desire with unprecedented depth and emotional power. It is both a feat of journalism and a triumph of storytelling, brimming with nuance and empathy, that introduces us to three unforgettable women—and one remarkable writer—whose experiences remind us that we are not alone.

Author: Lisa Taddeo | Publisher: Avid Reader Press

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I’m not giving this a star rating because Three Women is a difficult book to review. On the one hand, as the hype around this book suggests, the writing is really good, and the subject matter is gripping. However, there’s a big asterisk there: The publicity around this book has been extremely problematic.

Three Women is exactly what the title describes: A portrait of just three women. It examines, specifically, the overarching sexual experiences of these women’s lives — an illegal and lonely teacher-student relationship for Maggie, an affair born out of desperation for Lina, and a confusing exploration of multiple consenting partners for Sloane.

What you don’t get from the book’s cover blurb, and what I think is actually most telling, is that these stories carry a strong theme of sadness, desperation, confusion, loneliness. Even with Lina, who really takes her sexuality into her own hands and seeks what makes her happy, we can tell that it’s going to hurt her in the end.

So the positives here: Lisa Taddeo’s portrait of these women’s lives is stirring. She spent a decade immersing herself in their lives, to the point where she was able to tell their stories in a narrative style rather than a reporting style. So it reads like fiction, and it keeps you engrossed in their stories the whole time. I’m also grateful that Maggie’s story got to be told, because I (and probably every other reader of this book) am absolutely infuriated by the outcome of her trial. So that guy “won” the trial, but guess what, now you have a country full of readers who believe her side of the story. Small comfort, but it’s something.

Now for the problems. Is it any surprise that with such a small sample size (three) and in these places — rural Indiana, North Dakota, and one of the most desirable locations for summer homes for wealthy Americans — Lisa Taddeo ended up with a sample of purely white, cisgender women? One of them is perhaps bisexual (that term is never used, so we can’t be sure how she identifies, of course), but it’s also very heteronormative. So how can the cover blurb call this “the deepest nonfiction portrait of desire ever written” or “a groundbreaking portrait of erotic longing in today’s America”?

I am straight, white, and cisgender. I have a lot of privilege. And this makes me uncomfortable. This framing is irresponsible. From the intro and conclusion, it doesn’t seem (at least to me) like Lisa Taddeo meant for this book to be heralded to such encompassing ideas. She also tells us that she had started with a larger sample, but not everyone wanted to go through with the process of having their lives’ stories told. I imagine that with allllllll society’s biases, plus the giant taboo that exists around women’s desires, it might be doubly difficult to find women of color, transgender women, gay women, etc. who are willing to do it.

Of course, I’m speculating and trying to give the author the benefit of the doubt here, but I would like to think that had Lisa Taddeo known that this book would be heralded the way it was, she would have made even more of an effort to find women with different backgrounds and experiences. Maybe she did know and she didn’t try, and I’m totally wrong. It doesn’t really matter: Either way, in hindsight, we can definitely say that she should have tried harder.

Presenting white, heteronormative experiences as “complete portraits” of all experience is not only problematic, it’s literally impossible. And we need to STOP doing this.

Bottom line: I don’t want to discount the narrative talent held in this book, and I know that authors don’t always have a say in how their books are marketed. It does, in the end, tell well-written, stirring stories about the desire of three women and three women only. But those three white, cisgender women aren’t enough to give us a portrait of anything. And the media was dead wrong to present this the way it did. These are difficult opposing truths to hold in mind at the same time — and yet there they are.

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